Peter Robinson has rejected as “outrageous and groundless” an accusation he was to receive a payment linked to Northern Ireland’s largest ever property sale.
The DUP leader denounced the claim as he gave evidence to a Stormont committee investigating the controversial £1.2 billion sale of assets owned by Ireland’s National Assets Management Agency (Nama) to US investment firm Cerberus.
At a previous committee evidence hearing, high profile loyalist blogger and flag protester Jamie Bryson alleged that the DUP leader was among five people to receive a share of a “success fee” linked to the deal.
In a lengthy opening statement to committee members in Parliament Buildings, Belfast, Mr Robinson said he was “offended” by the allegation but “given its source, not surprised”.
He said that Mr Bryson had not produced “one shred of evidence” to support his allegation.
“For the record I didn’t receive, expect to receive, sought or was offered a single penny as a result of the Nama sale,” said Mr Robinson.
At the outset of the hearing, the DUP leader said he welcomed the opportunity to address “issues, misconceptions and inaccuracies” he said had arisen during previous committee hearings.
Mr Robinson remains Stormont’s First Minister but has stood aside from his duties amid an ongoing political crisis sparked by allegations that IRA members murdered Kevin McGuigan in Belfast.
Mr Robinson gave evidence to the committee for more than two-and-a-half hours yesterday.
Central to the inquiry is a fee paid in to an off-shore account controlled by solicitor Ian Coulter, a former managing partner of Belfast-based law firm Tughans.
Tughans, which was involved in the Nama transaction after being subcontracted by Cerberus’s US lawyers Brown Rudnick, has insisted it was not aware of this transfer.
The role of Belfast businessman Frank Cushnahan — someone with several links to Mr Robinson — has also come in for intense scrutiny.
Mr Cushnahan previously served on Nama’s Northern Ireland advisory committee — after being recommended for the post by the then DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson — but it has been claimed he later advised both Cerberus and another potential US buyer of the portfolio. Those claims have prompted questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Giving evidence to the committee last month, Mr Bryson alleged that Mr Robinson, Mr Cushnahan, Mr Coulter and two others – developer Andrew Creighton and accountant David Watters – were to share in the success fee.
All five men have publicly denied wrongdoing.
During the hearing, Mr Robinson was repeatedly asked about Mr Coulter and Mr Cushnahan.
The DUP leader said he knew them as “pillars of the establishment” who were both “motivated by the best interests of Northern Ireland”.
He said he never considered they would be in line for a fee as a result of the Nama deal.
Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir asked did he still view them in such high esteem following some of the claims made about the Nama deal.
“Do you feel disappointed in those two men?” Mr O Muilleoir asked.
Mr Robinson replied: “You invite me to reach conclusions. I am not investigating, I am not on your inquiry – it is up to you to reach your conclusions, it is up to the National Crime Agency (NCA) to reach their conclusions on these matters.
“I just think it is inappropriate for me to speculate on these matters – I have no responsibility to speculate on these matters and I think it would be imprudent of me to do so.”
Mr Robinson also challenged the Sinn Fein MLA’s characterisation of the sale as “corrupt and dirty”.
“By way of concern I would express the view that if the role of the committee is to establish facts it probably is better that the members of the committee do not in advance decide what the outcome is going to be and then try to retro-fit what the evidence is to what their conclusions have been,” he said.
“It doesn’t encourage confidence in an open and fair process if there is already a conclusion reached that this is a corrupt deal or a dirty deal.”
The First Minister stressed that while the picture had been “clouded” regarding the Nama deal – the transaction ultimately was good for Northern Ireland, as it effectively unfroze assets that had been controlled by Nama.
Mr Robinson also moved to counter evidence given to the committee by Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last month.
Mr McGuinness told MLAs he had not been fully engaged or fully briefed on the Nama deal, referencing meetings and documents he was not aware of.
The DUP leader insisted the Deputy First Minister was “kept informed throughout the process”, claiming he had copies of text messages and emails between DUP and Sinn Fein advisers that proved it.
“Whatever way one looks at it, it is clear the Deputy First Minister did have knowledge of material facts that were available to me during the process,” he said.
However, Mr Robinson said he did not think Mr McGuinness had attempted to mislead the committee and went out of his way to emphasise that he was not accusing his Stormont Castle colleague of lying, but rather that his recollection of the events was not correct.